Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Marda Dunsky
Columbia University Press.
456 Pages.
There are few finer places in the world for journalists to gather than the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. Straddling the east and west of the city geographically and politically, it is a natural meeting point for a discreet chat with a loose-tongued diplomat or a decompressing beer with colleagues after a day of rioting and tear gas in the West Bank.

On the city’s surprisingly cool winter nights, we would descend into the snug warmth of the cavernous underground bar. In the heat of summer, it was rather a table in the lush summer garden to be served by Ibrahim, a gentle giant of a Palestinian and a man described by my BBC colleague Jeremy Bowen as simply “the best bartender in the world.”

On such nights, and especially if there were newcomers to the story in town, a trusted old piece of advice for reporting the conflict would be handed down: “Never be definite. Never be positive. And you won’t go far wrong.”

I was reminded of these words several times when reading Marda Dunsky’s valuable book, “Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” In her career as a newspaper reporter and editor, Dunsky served at one time as an Arab affairs reporter for The Jerusalem Post. Now, as a professor at DePaul University, she teaches a course, “Reporting the Arab and Muslim Worlds.”

One must, of course, sometimes be definite, and even on occasion positive, when covering the relentless conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But what might at first seem an unnecessarily negative adage is born of years of bitter experience. This is a story that holds many traps for Western journalists. Facts, our holiest of grails, are rarely what they first appear and are almost always challenged by one side or another. Eyewitnesses turn out not to have actually been present. And ceasefires and peace plans seem to evaporate as inevitably and inexorably as the slick waters of the Dead Sea.

Dunsky’s approach to the problem is ambitious. The basic premise of her work is that American news organizations, for a number of historical, cultural and political reasons, not only misrepresent the conflict but also do so in a way that consistently favors the Israeli position.

Early on she turns to the venerable British Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk to lay out the territory. Writing in 1998 about U.S. policy in the region, he observed:

Academics may one day decide how deeply the American public has been misled by the persistent bias of the U.S. media, and the degree to which this has led them to support U.S. policies which may destroy America’s prestige in the Middle East.

It would be wrong not to point out that Fisk, a long-time Middle East correspondent for The Independent, and a number of other sources used throughout the book have long been viewed by the Israeli establishment and its supporters as irredeemably anti-Israel. Knowing this, Dunsky moves ahead to lay out her position with the cold logic of an international prosecutor. It doesn’t always make for the easiest of reading, but the sheer weight of her factual research is impressive.

According to Dunsky’s presentation:

  • The United States has sent more than $100 billion to Israel in economic and military aid since 1949, the vast majority since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in which it occupied the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. In contrast, she calculates that Palestinians in the region have received between $2 billion to $5 billion of American aid.
  • In military terms, she cites the U.S. State Department claim that American aid accounts for a full 20 percent of Israel’s defense budget.
  • On the diplomatic front, we’re told that since 1970 the United States has used its veto at the United Nations 41 times in support of Israel, half the entire number of occasions it has been wielded at all.

Dunsky uses such information to pose the question: How can the United States claim the role of an honest broker in the conflict when it overwhelmingly favors Israel with diplomatic support and economic and military aid?

Of course, the argument of consistent media bias is a more difficult one to make. Yet Dunsky’s book is at its best when she reveals little-known aspects of the relationship that exists between American journalists and their government. For years in Jerusalem, I would receive transcriptions of the daily press briefings given by the U.S. State Department. I used to marvel at the linguistic sophistry employed by spokesmen to avoid answering direct questions about the United States’s relationship with Israel.

Several examples are used in the book, including one 20-minute exchange over Israeli settlement building (far too long to reproduce here), which borders on the surreal. As Dunsky points out, it’s not that the journalists do not ask the right questions and pressure State Department spokespeople. They do. But, as Dunsky explains, when questions are successfully parried and deflected, nothing of the exchange ever gets reported to the vast majority of the American people.

Another strength of her book is the space she gives to lengthy interviews with former Jerusalem-based correspondents from some of the major U.S. newspapers and TV and radio networks. What emerges from these conversations is a fairly accurate picture of a reporter’s daily experience in Jerusalem. The journalists report being inundated by information from the Israeli side, while the Palestinian media operation is shambolic. Journalists have to be consistently on their guard to make sure coverage is not swayed towards the Israeli position simply because that side presents its argument in a clearer form for the Western media.

The concern of many Palestinians and their supporters, of course, is that American news organizations live in so much fear of the powerful pro-Israel lobby at home that they actively intervene to stop coverage that is sympathetic to the Palestinian side. Dunsky finds no direct evidence of this and, in fact, her thesis suggests another cause: In a series of small unspoken decisions, news organizations steer clear of potentially troublesome subjects.

The following passage about Israeli settlements from an interview with Gillian Findlay, an ABC News correspondent in Jerusalem from 1997 to 2002, is instructive:

It’s not as if anybody ever said to me, “No, we don’t want to do that.” It was just one of those things that never happened. … Somewhere there should have been an opportunity to take a broader look: What are the settlements? Why are those people there? Why do they justify their presence there? How do the Palestinians view them? That never happened. I honestly can’t remember that we ever went out to do a piece specifically about settlements.

It is also to Dunsky’s credit that she tackles some of the more difficult aspects of how the news media fail to challenge aspects of the Palestinian narrative. Chris Hedges, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, speaks of Western journalists “lapping up” the apparent resolve of a Palestinian family when a son or brother has been killed or committed a suicide attack. As Hedges accurately describes, militant groups such as Hamas often take over these funerals, and this makes it extremely difficult for the family to show the real grief they do feel. “They know the line they’re supposed to parrot back, especially to the international press,” Hedges says. “It is the great failing of the press that when something is incomprehensible to us we certify it as incomprehensible to everyone.”

Overall, Dunsky makes a reasonable case. The book’s academic approach means it is unlikely to challenge the classics on Middle East reporting, such as New York Times’s columnist and former Middle East correspondent Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem” on the bestseller lists. But what she addresses are weighty matters and, along with a balancing tome from the pro-Israel side, this detailed work should be on the shopping list of all American correspondents moving to Jerusalem.

Simon Wilson, a 2008 Nieman Fellow, is Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the BBC. After spending several years in Jerusalem as a BBC producer, he became the BBC bureau chief there in 2005.

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